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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
23 October 2017
Volume 630

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Defence Co-operation

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1. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on defence co-operation after the UK leaves the EU. [901300]

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9. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on defence co-operation after the UK leaves the EU. [901308]

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Our foreign policy, defence and development paper set out our ambition for a strong partnership when we leave the European Union. We are unconditionally committed to European security, and we will work closely with our European partners to defend our shared values and to confront shared threats. Our long-standing commitment to NATO nuclear deterrence remains the ultimate guarantee of our security.

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The UK is leaving the EU and the single market just when the EU is providing large funds for co-operation on procurement, and research and development. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the UK defence industry has continued access to EU projects and to co-operation with the European defence sector?

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That is exactly what we will try to ensure, as we set out in the paper that was published a few weeks ago. We want our defence companies to stay close to the European Defence Agency and other collaborative programmes on the continent, a number of which are in shared ownership with companies in Europe.

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RM Condor in my neighbouring constituency has played a key role in defence co-operation with both EU and non-EU allies. In recent months, however, cuts have created uncertainty about the very future of the base, which has caused great concern to many of my constituents who work and serve at the base and their families. Does the Secretary of State agree that this not only sends entirely the wrong message about our commitment to our allies, including the European Union, but will strike at the heart of our community, which has a long history with this base?

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I have visited the Condor base, and I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, although we are looking hard at the future use of its airfield, the base itself will not be affected. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has direct responsibility for basing matters, is happy to talk to him in more detail.

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Whether or not Britain is part of the European Union, bilateral defence co-operation with our allies is important at any time. Will the Secretary of State comment on progress on the Lancaster House agreement? That seems such a sensible arrangement to have with a country with similar defence forces and a similar world view.

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In the past few months I have had meetings with my counterparts in Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Italy and Romania, and I have received inward visits from my counterparts from Croatia, the Netherlands and Poland. The Lancaster House framework is the most important of all our relationships with other members of the European Union, and I assure my right hon. Friend that when I meet the French Minister, Madame Parly, next month, we will discuss how we take work under that agreement further forward.

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Britain had close working defence relationships with all European countries for decades before the EU was even invented, and for centuries before that with many of them. Does the Secretary of State agree that although we will of course maintain close defence relationships with France, Germany and other European countries, Brexit gives us an opportunity to redevelop some of our defence relationships across the world—with the old Commonwealth and the United States of America, and of course with NATO being at the centre of it all?

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Brexit, of course, gives us the opportunity to look again at our global role. We currently contribute to more than a dozen common security and defence policy missions and operations organised by the European Union, and it is important that from outside the European Union we continue, where we can, to consider how we can further contribute to European security, as well as to the global role about which my hon. Friend and I agree.

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I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that our defence industry needs certainty and stability from the Government so that it can plan its operations appropriately, but the Opposition believe that the Government’s dogged insistence on dragging us out of the customs union and the single market during the transition period is having the opposite effect. Is it not time that we put the interests of our economy first, including the defence sector, rather than the interests of a minority of Tory Back Benchers, by retaining our membership of the single market and customs union for a time-limited period as we leave the EU?

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As we leave the European Union, we have to leave the single market and the customs union. Our paper on the foreign policy and defence partnership we seek after we leave the European Union makes it clear that we continue to seek the closest possible co-operation between our defence industry and the defence industries of the continent.

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My right hon. Friend has already referred to global reach. Given that the United Kingdom probably has a greater capability with that than any armed forces in Europe, is there not a common feeling between the Europeans and the United Kingdom that we could co-operate in future for our mutual defence?

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Yes. Our 2015 strategic defence and security review made it clear that our defence posture will be international by design—we will increasingly be working more closely with our friends and allies around the world. We saw evidence of that co-operation when dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, for example.

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Crucial to our relationship with EU and non-EU allies is the work of the Royal Marines in northern Europe. The fears that we have heard elsewhere about the future of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which are key components of the UK-Netherlands amphibious force, are not being felt only on these shores, and the same is true of the decision earlier this summer to cancel the vital winter training in Norway. What assurances does the Secretary of State have today for our allies in northern Europe that those programmes are not in danger?

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We work very closely with our northern European allies, not least through the Northern Group and the joint expeditionary force, of which many of the other northern countries are members. The Royal Marines are a key part of that co-operation.

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I think that was a response rather than an answer. I am grateful for what the Secretary of State said to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) about the base at Arbroath, but will he tell us a bit more about his plans for the airfield so that those crucial partners in Europe know more about it, as well as my hon. Friend’s constituents?

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We are looking again at a large number of the airfields that we are not making full use of at the moment to determine whether they can be released for other use in a number of parts of this country, which would give us an opportunity for the new housing that we need. The Royal Marine base at Condor is part of that review, and I have said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East, who is responsible for basing, is very happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) about the future development of that airfield.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that Members all have a responsibility when it comes to speculation? We could speculate about anything at all, but we are talking about people’s lives and jobs, so we should base our debate around facts, not a political agenda.

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I agree with my hon. Friend; there has been quite enough speculation and scaremongering, not least among Opposition Members. The threats to our country have intensified since the 2015 review, so the National Security Adviser is conducting a specific capabilities review to make sure that we are implementing the 2015 review in the best possible way to give us the impact we need from our re-equipment programme.

Defence Funding

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2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the adequacy of defence funding. [901301]

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I have regular discussions with the Chancellor. The Government are committed to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence and to growing the defence budget by at least 0.5% above inflation every year of this Parliament. The defence budget will therefore rise from £36 billion this year to almost £40 billion by 2020-21.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that the inadequacy of current funding and the uncertainty around long-term investments that that generates has had an impact on the security of jobs at BAE Systems, including in my constituency?

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If Opposition Members were really concerned about jobs at BAE Systems, they would get behind our export campaigns for Typhoon and Hawk aircraft, rather than undermining them by criticising potential customers. When I saw the chairman of BAE Systems last week, I reassured him that we wanted to continue to work with the company. I have emphasised the importance of keeping production lines open, should new orders for Typhoons and Hawks materialise, and of staying on track in developing RAF Marham for the arrival of the F-35.

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Does the Secretary of State recall that several years after we took the peace dividend, in the mid-1990s, we were still spending 3% of GDP on defence? Will he assure us that no inadequacy in the defence budget will lead to the loss of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which are scheduled to leave service in 2033 and 2034, as the defence procurement Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), wrote to the Defence Committee to say only in January?

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On the latter point, I have referred to the purpose of the capabilities review, which is simply to make sure that the equipment programme that we set out in 2015 is on track and is spending our money in the best possible way to deal with the threats, which have intensified since then. On the first point, about finance, the defence budget was £34 billion when I became Defence Secretary. It is £36 billion today and it will reach £40 billion by 2020.

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We have heard that a Tory rebellion is growing over next month’s Budget, with half the Cabinet determined to sack the Chancellor because they are convinced that they can do a better job themselves. There is even speculation that the loyal Defence Secretary might be about to launch his own offensive on No. 11.

On a more serious matter, most of the Tory manifesto has already bitten the dust, so I was pleased that the Secretary of State seemed to be very confident about the commitment to a 0.5% year-on-year increase in defence spending. Will he give us a categorical assurance that there will be no fiddling of the figures, as we have seen with the NATO commitment on spending 2% of GDP?

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I am not sure whether the hon. Lady’s first point was a reference to speculation or scaremongering, but it is good to hear from her after she was gagged at the Labour party conference and not given any kind of speaking slot.

I can reassure the hon. Lady that our manifesto commitment to increasing the defence budget by at least 0.5% ahead of inflation is an absolute commitment and that we will stand by it. As for what is classified as 2% spending for the purposes of the NATO return, that is entirely a matter for NATO to decide.

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The reality is that the Government’s chaotic mismanagement has led to gaping holes in the MOD’s budget. As we have heard, there is real concern about cuts to our amphibious capabilities. Will the Secretary of State say categorically that there will be absolutely no cuts to the Royal Marines?

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The Royal Marines are part of the Royal Navy. With the latest Astute submarine, Audacious, launching back in the spring, the steel cut in July on HMS Glasgow, the first of our new frigates, the sailing of HMS Queen Elizabeth, and the naming of HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Forth and HMS Medway, nobody should be in any doubt that this year has seen the Royal Navy growing in power and numbers.

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We hear discussion of defence budgets, but would it not be worth our also focusing on what the armed forces achieve for the United Kingdom? Through their soft influence, ships visits and training establishments, are they not fundamentally part of our foreign policy and integrated defence?

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Absolutely, and smart and soft power are as important to us as hard power, which is why it is the Government’s ambition to continue to grow the defence budget, and the power and impact of our forces.

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I note that the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) appears to be powered by wires. If he is subject to some sort of exterior propulsion, he may be setting a precedent for Chairs of Select Committees. We are very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, I feel sure—his attire will be closely followed in the future.

Strategic Defence and Security Review

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3. What progress he is making on meeting the targets for 2020 set out in the SDSR 2015. [901302]

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17. What progress he is making on meeting the targets for 2020 set out in the SDSR 2015. [901316]

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Since SDSR 2015, we have cut steel on the first Type 26 and signed the contract to buy new Apache helicopters. We are on track to deliver by the end of 2020: initial operating capability for carrier strike; maritime patrol aircraft; and to field Ajax. We have launched our innovation initiative, and published both our shipbuilding and our international defence engagement strategies.

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HMS Bulwark helped to evacuate 1,300 British citizens from Lebanon during the 2006 crisis. Given the Foreign Office’s recent problems evacuating citizens caught up in Hurricane Irma, will the Minister argue for his Department or the Department for International Development to lead on future evacuations? Will he guarantee today that the Government will maintain the fleet’s littoral capacity, which is currently provided by HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion?

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One of this Government’s strengths is in how we successfully work together between Departments. We saw the comprehensive approach working very effectively during recent weeks in the cross-Government response to Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean. That is exactly the approach we should be taking.

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SDSR 2015 aimed for at least 10% of our armed forces personnel to be from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background. Latest figures show that just 2.4% of regular officers are from a BAME background and that there are currently no BAME officers at a two-star rank or above. When will Ministers publish a new diversity strategy to get to grips with that challenge?

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The hon. Gentleman is quite right that Britain is changing, and it is very important that our armed forces represent modern Britain. There is a very impressive strategy in place in which—he is quite right—the target is for 10% of recruits to be from the BAME community and 15% to be women. We have had varying success across our three forces. The Royal Air Force is doing the best by far but, year on year, we are seeing improvements, and I am determined that we shall continue to recruit role models to help this process.

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By 2020, the commitments set out in SDSR 2015 will be funded by a defence budget totalling a record £40 billion. The Government’s welcome commitment to spending 2% of our economy on defence is the minimum NATO requirement. Is the Government’s welcome commitment to that rubbing off on our fellow NATO counterparts?

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My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Indeed, we are committed to spending at least 2% and I am delighted that we continue to do that. Slowly but surely, we are getting this message across to our NATO allies. Although only a minority of them do spend 2%, we are conscious that the direction of travel is positive.

Shipbuilding/Type 31e Frigate

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4. What progress he has made on implementing the national shipbuilding strategy and on procuring the Type 31e frigate. [901303]

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16. What progress he has made on implementing the national shipbuilding strategy and on procuring the Type 31e frigate. [901315]

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We published our national shipbuilding strategy in September. The very next day, we launched the programme for five new Type 31e frigates. We are currently considering at least 20 different proposals from industry across the UK.

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I thank the Minister for her response. It is fantastic news that the national shipbuilding strategy will benefit the whole United Kingdom. Cornwall has a long and proud history with the sea. HMS Cornwall was decommissioned in June 2011. I urge her to take a bid from Cornwall to put, once again, Cornwall back on the waves.

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My hon. Friend is an absolute champion for his county of Cornwall. He will be aware that we have started to announce the names of the Type 26 frigates with HMS Glasgow and HMS Belfast. Further names will be announced in due course. The Type 31e frigate will be named by the Royal Navy Ships Names and Badges Committee, and he has set out his claim today.

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The strategy announced by the Secretary of State will provide many opportunities for the supply chain, including for companies such as GE Energy in my constituency, which is currently working on the first batch of the Type 26—the global combat ship. Will the Minister say something about the timetable for the second batch of those vessels?

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My hon. Friend highlights the importance of the supply chain right across the UK and the fact that, in a relatively landlocked part of the UK, so much work is pouring in from the frigate programme. We announced a £3.7 billion first batch of Type 26 frigates. We will be securing the necessary approvals to carry on negotiations for that contract and we will announce the second batch of five frigates early in the 2020s.

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14. Despite the challenges facing the UK steel industry, too many of the offshore patrol vessels used by the Royal Navy are being built with foreign steel. Can the Minister assure us that, as part of the national shipbuilding strategy, British steel will be put first when building new vessels? [901313]

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I am delighted to let the House know that UK steel was represented at the first of the industry days that we held for the Type 31e frigate at the end of September. Its involvement at that very early stage ensures that it has the best chance of winning these competitions.

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How does the Minister respond to suggestions from trade unions on the Clyde that the promises made to them have been broken by the Ministry of Defence, and will the Government change their illogical decision to put three fleet support ships out to international competition? Should they not be built in the UK, too?

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Well, honestly, every time I talk about our wonderful programme of shipbuilding in the UK, I hear nothing but doom and gloom from our friends on the Scottish nationalist Benches. In fact—and no one would believe this—there are currently 15 ships being built in Scotland, including the second of the two new aircraft carriers, two decades-worth of work on the frigate programme and five new offshore patrol vessels. Frankly, I do not know what I could do to keep these gentlemen and ladies happy.

Daesh

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5. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the military campaign against Daesh. [901304]

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We are making significant progress. In Syria, Raqqa was freed from Daesh’s control on Friday. In Iraq, Mosul was liberated in July, and Tal Afar and Hawija followed very quickly thereafter. RAF strikes will continue against terrorist targets until they have been defeated in both Iraq and Syria. Only by pursuing this campaign can we help to reduce the terrorist threat to us here in Europe.

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This campaign will evolve as coalition forces destroy and degrade Daesh strongholds in Syria and across the middle east. There are reports of Daesh activity in Libya. What plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure that when Daesh is defeated in one area, it does not have a resurgence in another?

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We are working with the international coalition. We will be meeting as coalition Defence Ministers in a few weeks’ time in Brussels to ensure that there is no emergence of Daesh in Libya or in other countries. So far as Libya itself is concerned, we are supporting the United Nations plan under the special representative of the Secretary-General, Ghassan Salamé.

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When the then Prime Minister asked this House to approve airstrikes in November 2015, he described Raqqa as

“the head of the snake”—[Official Report, 26 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1531.]

Now that the snake has apparently been beheaded, how long would the Secretary of State envisage the RAF staying in the region? And why on earth, after three opportunities, have the Government not made a statement to the House about this major development?

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There are regular reports to the House by myself, the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary in a cycle of reporting and updating on the campaign in Iraq and Syria. I briefed Members of Parliament—I think the hon. Gentleman was present—at the Ministry last week.

The campaign is now changing, following the liberation of Raqqa and Mosul. British forces will be training further forward and are providing appropriate force protection for our personnel in and around coalition bases. I have today authorised the deployment of additional medical personnel to al-Asad air base, and extended the deployment of British engineers there for a further six months.

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This question is a start, but there may be a statement, by one means or another, in this Chamber before very long.

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I will keep asking, Mr Speaker.

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Indeed.

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19. I was in Iraqi Kurdistan for the recent referendum and had the privilege of meeting troops from 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment who are training the peshmerga in the fight against Daesh. I am bound to say that I was very impressed by what I saw, but given the Secretary of State’s positive and welcome assessment of the campaign, what next for our armed forces in the fight against Daesh? [901318]

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It is important that we keep up the fight against Daesh until it has been pushed right up to the Syrian border in Iraq and defeated there, and that we then begin the process of stabilisation and reconciliation in the provinces of Anbar and Nineveh to ensure that all those people—Sunni and Shi’a—realise that they have a stake in the future security of Iraq.

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The Labour party has long called for an operational service medal for our personnel on Operation Shader, so we welcome last month’s announcement. The Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged that the changing nature of warfare requires changing the criteria for how we award medals. Does he have any plans to review the process, and when might that review be published?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for an Operation Shader medal, which we hope to start issuing next year. It will rightly recognise the contribution made, over three years now, by our servicemen and women in this very important campaign against the evil of our time. I have already commented publicly about the current criteria, which require both “risk and rigour” to have been undergone before service personnel are eligible for a medal. The nature of warfare is changing, so we are having another look at those criteria.

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One consequence of the success of the operations against Daesh has been the dispersal of many of its volunteers, including United Kingdom citizens. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who is a Minister of State at the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, said that, as far as UK citizens who had served in ISIS were concerned, the only thing to do, with one or two exceptions, was to kill them. Is that now Government policy?

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My hon. Friend and I have made it clear that those who travel to fight with Daesh in Iraq or Syria will have been committing a criminal offence. Daesh is a proscribed organisation, and we have to make sure that if these people ever do return from Iraq and Syria, they do not pose a future threat to our national security. However, they have made their choice: they have chosen to fight for an organisation that uses terror and the murder of civilians as a modus operandi.

Army Personnel

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6. What assessment he has made of recent trends in the size of the Army. [901305]

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11. What assessment he has made of recent trends in the size of the Army. [901310]

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We are committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces, including an Army that is able to field a war-fighting division. While Army recruitment and retention remain challenging, over 8,000 people joined the regular Army last year and since April applications are over 20% higher compared with the same period last year.

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I thank the Minister for that answer, but in the year I was born—1989—the Regular Army’s strength was 140,000. In 2006, when I joined the Territorials, it was 102,000. Yet, in recent years, we have seen the Army fall below a regular strength of 82,000—the Government’s stated target—to only 80,000, and that includes a 40% fall in the armoured strength of the Army. Does the Minister not accept that this is an unacceptable degradation of British Army strength?

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No, I do not. It is important to note that the Army is currently 95% manned. I do accept that there are challenges. Having probably the highest employment rate we have had in recent years does not help when it comes to recruiting to the Army. There is also, as we discussed earlier, the changing nature of Britain, which means we have to fight harder to make sure that all parts of society will join the Army. However, this is also about the offer, and I must say that when the Leader of the Opposition says he cannot see a situation where he would deploy the Army overseas, that is hardly a good recruiting tool to get young people who want to join the Army to do exactly that.

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The latest figures show that the Army is running at 6% under the number of personnel needed, with the gap growing. How understaffed do we need to be before the Secretary of State will put pressure on the Chancellor to lift the 1% pay cap to boost recruitment?

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The Army, as I say, is 95% recruited and quite capable of fulfilling all its commitments. I am pleased there will be some flexibility in how we apply pay—of course, we have the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, which sets it. It is important to have some flexibility so that we can attract people into the skill sets we are currently short of.

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Can my hon. Friend confirm or deny whether there is any truth in the current media speculation that the UK armed forces are about to be subsumed into a European defence force to placate the European Union?

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Blimey! That really is speculation. No, I think I can absolutely scupper that one.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that Yeovil’s multi-role Wildcat helicopters ably support and protect our Army units and could be upgraded with missiles even better to support more focused strike brigades?

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Of course, those are just some of the questions we are considering under the ongoing national security capability review, the purpose of which is to decide how best we can use the money we are investing in our armed forces to maximise their capability.

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On the basis of the Minister’s first answer, can he guarantee that the Army’s strength will not drop below 80,000?

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We continue to work hard to ensure we have new recruits coming. As I say, the news this year is positive: we have over 8,000 recruits, which is up 20% on last year.

HMS Queen Elizabeth

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7. What recent progress has been made on bringing HMS Queen Elizabeth into service. [901306]

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HMS Queen Elizabeth sailed from Rosyth in June to commence her sea trials. She made her first entry into Portsmouth in August for a scheduled engineering period. Her second set of sea trials should begin this week, weather permitting. She remains on track to be accepted into the Royal Navy this year.

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Will my hon. Friend confirm that, as well as projecting global Britain’s power for the next 50 years, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will provide long-term skilled job opportunities and training for people in Portsmouth and its neighbouring constituencies such as mine?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that this is not only about the 10,000 people who have worked on getting the ship to the point where she is now, but about long-term sustainment over the next 50 years. May I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to put on record my appreciation to the Fareham company Boskalis Westminster Ltd, which did a lot of the dredging of Portsmouth harbour?

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Ah, splendid!

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Will the Minister update the House on what is happening with regard to ordering the aircraft for the aircraft carrier? It would be handy to have an update on that.

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I am pleased to be able to update the hon. Gentleman. As he will know, we already have 12 F-35 aircraft and they are already flying in the US. We will have 14 by the end of the year. Next year, we are on track to stand up the first squadron in the UK. I am pleased that I was able to announce last week that the F-35 has successfully completed the trials on the ski jump in the US and is now cleared to take off from the carrier.

Armed Forces: Pay

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8. What steps his Department is taking to improve satisfaction rates on pay in the armed forces. [901307]

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Following the recession, there has been a requirement for fiscal responsibility to manage the deficit, but today we need to balance protecting jobs in the public sector, being fair to public sector workers and, of course, being fair to taxpayers who pay for it. Armed forces pay rates are recommended by the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body. We look forward to receiving its next set of recommendations for 2018-19.

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The Government are fond of saying that they value our armed forces personnel, yet back in June every Minister and every Cabinet member, including the Defence Secretary himself, voted against lifting the public sector pay cap for our armed forces. Is this not proof that their commitment to our brave men and women is only skin-deep?

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The Opposition have a habit of spending money that they do not have. We need to take various things into consideration. Much as we would like to move forward with breaking the 1% pay cap, we have to bear in mind that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body takes into consideration banded progressive pay, subsidised accommodation, a range of allowances—including the X factor, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware of—and the basic salary, which remains competitive, as well as comparisons with the private sector. It is for the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to make its decisions, and we look forward to that.

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Did I hear the Minister banging on about “The X Factor”? This may require some elaboration for some colleagues, I think, but never mind.

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In spite of increases in accommodation costs and cuts to tax credits, the Government have slashed the starting pay of an Army private by over £1,000 in real terms. This is no way to treat our loyal armed forces, and it will do nothing to resolve the crisis in recruitment and retention. Will the Government now change their priorities, stop thinking about the £2.5 billion tax giveaway they are giving to the big companies and the wealthy, and commit to freeing up the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, so that it is not constrained by the 1% pay cap, allowing it to give a proper pay rise to our armed forces personnel?

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I am not sure where the hon. Lady has been, but there is now that flexibility. There is no longer the pressure to remain within the 1%—it has been removed. I wish that her enthusiasm for the armed forces would rub off on the Leader of the Opposition, who has no support or respect for the armed forces, and no respect for NATO, and wants to get rid of our nuclear deterrent.

Armed Forces: Mental Health

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12. What plans he has to improve mental health support for armed forces personnel. [901311]

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We must recognise that historically mental health has not received the same attention as physical wellbeing. I am therefore pleased that in July we published our new mental health and wellbeing strategy, which comprehensively addresses this. I hope that that will lead to a cultural change in challenging the stigma and improving the mental fitness of our armed forces personnel and, indeed, their families.

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I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. Does he agree that it is important not only that we provide better treatment for our veterans, but that the public appreciate that the vast majority of veterans who leave the armed forces do so all the better for having served, rather than as damaged individuals?

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My hon. Friend makes such an important point. I think that the whole House respects and reveres our armed forces, but we need to bury the myth that someone who joins the armed forces is more likely to have mental health problems, more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder and more likely to commit suicide than the general population. That is absolutely not the case. We have 2.5 million veterans in this country, and 15,000 leave every single year. Of those, 90% get into jobs or education within six months. Of course some of them, through no fault of their own, require support, and we need to make sure that we provide it.

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Veterans have done their duty and we must ensure that we do ours by them. Can the Minister say a few words about what extra steps are being taken by the Armed Forces Covenant and Veterans Board to address this critical issue?

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I am pleased to say that this was a manifesto commitment. We need to recognise that it is not just the MOD that looks after our veterans’ interests; that happens across Whitehall. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be chairing the first meeting of the board on Thursday.

My hon. Friend asks about the covenant, which is very important even though it is in its infancy. It encourages businesses to employ veterans and allow reservists to go on their training, and it provides deals for regular members of the armed forces.

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The Veterans Welfare Service is committed to enhancing veterans’ quality of life, and its main objective is the efficient delivery of core services. My constituent, Scott Garthley, has had a very different experience, with his records failing to display his veteran status and with the loss of his national insurance payment records. Will the Minister meet my constituent to discuss these matters?

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I make it clear that if any hon. Member has such a situation, I would be more than delighted to make sure that we understand what support can be provided. That is the duty of this House, the MOD and the nation. Working out which way to turn can be confusing. There are 450 charities out there, and the Veterans Gateway programme, which was launched this July, provides that support. I would be more than delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman.

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rose—

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The hon. Gentleman has a look of statesmanlike gravity on his face. I am keen to know the source.

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I am very worried about the complacency in the Minister’s answers. Why is it that Crisis and so many other charities that work with homeless people and people who are sleeping rough find that a huge percentage of them are ex-military personnel? What are we doing about it?

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That is another example of a myth that we need to bust. I pay tribute to the local authorities and the charities that are doing their work. Where we are failing, if we are failing, is in not communicating where the support for our brave veterans is. That is something that we all need to work towards.

Amphibious Ships

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13. What recent assessment he has made of the role of amphibious ships in the Royal Navy. [901312]

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The tremendous work of RFA Mounts Bay last month in the Caribbean in response to Hurricane Irma demonstrated the versatility of amphibious ships in the Royal Navy.

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It did indeed, but people in County Durham will be very alarmed that there appears to be a question mark over the future of HMS Bulwark. She is one of the newest amphibious ships; she has been the fleet flagship; and she has been used to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean. Surely, would not a decision to decommission her early be a false economy?

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I, too, have read the speculation in the press, and it is just that. As we have discussed at Defence questions today, a national security and capability review is taking place. It is very important that we have that review, which is about trying to bring together our capabilities with our investment. Equally, the hon. Lady will recognise that, while that capability review is ongoing, it would be entirely inappropriate for me to pluck out individual capabilities and comment on them.

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I see the Minister of State is enjoying the benefits of family encouragement. This is something that we enthusiastically welcome.

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In welcoming my hon. Friend’s assurance that the future of our amphibious capability is under active and positive consideration, may I say, as one who has been privileged to spend a little bit of time on HMS Bulwark, that she is a magnificent fighting ship? She punches well above her weight. She has served this nation very well, and to remove her from service would be an absolute tragedy.

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I recognise my hon. Friend’s support, and indeed the support of colleagues from across the House who feel strongly on this matter. We enjoy an amphibious capability; of course, it is not just Albion and Bulwark. Albion is about to step up into the high-readiness role for the next five years and Bulwark will be going into the low-readiness role, but there are also the three Bay class ships and we will be investing in amphibious capability for the Queen Elizabeth class as well.

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As the Member of Parliament who represents the dockyard and naval base where Albion and Bulwark are base-ported, may I ask the Minister to speed up this review? There are lots of people who are very concerned about their jobs and the local economy if Albion and Bulwark and the Royal Marines are scrapped?

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Once again, the hon. Gentleman seems to be unnecessarily adding fuel to the speculation—indeed, perhaps even scaremongering—among his own constituents, which I do not think is particularly valuable. What I will say is that the review will be completed in a timely manner, but it is important to get it right.

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Will my hon. Friend confirm that, in taking decisions about our amphibious capability and other issues, he will always be guided by military advice on what capabilities we need?

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That is a very fair point. Indeed, at the moment, no advice has been put on Ministers’ desks about the outcome to which the review is leading, but it will be based firmly on military advice.

Former Armed Forces Personnel

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15. What personal information his Department holds on former armed forces personnel. [901314]

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The Ministry of Defence holds personal information on former armed forces personnel for lawful defence and security purposes. Information is held if the individual is receiving an armed forces occupational pension, has made a claim for compensation, or is being provided with welfare assistance. The MOD is determined to ensure that veterans who require help are provided with appropriate support through the Veterans UK helpline and website, the welfare service and the veterans information service.

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The help has not been available to my constituent Mr Joseph Palmer, who has lived in the UK since he was three. He served our country as a regular in the Army between 2008 and 2014, and served in Afghanistan. The only place that holds his records is the MOD, because the immigration and visa service has lost his details and his documents. Will the Minister work with me to ensure that my constituent can remain in and work in the UK?

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I will be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this case.

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Will the Minister assure me that medical records of former personnel are accurately passed to general practitioners? It is a long time ago now, but mine were not, and there was no record of my being badly hurt and spending six months in hospital. My general practitioner was amazed.

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My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is important that we get these things right. As those who have served in the armed forces depart, we need to make sure that we provide the service that veterans deserve.

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22. One of the ways in which the Minister could ensure better information is stored is through the national census. The Office for National Statistics said last week that former armed forces personnel should be included as a new question on the census. What is his response to the ONS? [901321]

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I am delighted to say that I am very supportive of that. The more information we have to help us understand who veterans are—whether through a veterans identity card; through changing the driving licence so that it has a symbol to show that people are veterans, which we are looking at with the Secretary of State; or, indeed, by showing that on GP records—the more we can support veterans, and that is the direction of travel in which we should go.

Leaving the EU: Defence Spending

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18. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on defence spending. [901317]

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Leaving the European Union should not affect our defence spending. Our commitment to European security will continue when we leave. We are committed to meeting the NATO guidelines of spending at least 2% of GDP on defence and to increasing the defence budget by at least 0.5% above inflation in every year of the Parliament. That will enable us to deliver smarter, stronger defence in the face of intensifying threats.

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With the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the pound is in free-fall. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that costs are kept under control for future equipment that must be paid for in US dollars, such as the F-35 and Apache helicopter?

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Like any large organisation, we take precautions against movements in the currency. We continue to ensure that we get the best value for money from all parts of our equipment programme.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [901339]

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The Government have a strong record of supporting our armed forces and delivering a growing defence budget. Since July, we have led the response to Hurricane Irma, published a new national shipbuilding strategy, supported the defeat of Daesh in Raqqa and continued to lead in NATO. I congratulate all those service personnel and veterans who competed so well in the recent Invictus games.

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Growing the supply of engineers is one way in which the Government can support both the armed forces and the defence industry. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what action his Department is taking to support next year’s Year of Engineering to ensure that we inspire the next generation of engineers?

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We recruit, train and employ more than 55,000 engineers. We will work as a partner with the Department for Transport on its Year of Engineering 2018 initiative. Each of the single services will play a role in promoting that initiative through science, technology, engineering and maths outreach, helping to deliver a bright future for engineering in the United Kingdom.

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Given the announcement of nearly 2,000 job losses at BAE Systems, will the Government bring forward their order for new Hawk aircraft for the Red Arrows to maintain industrial capacity?

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May I use this opportunity to put on record what a wonderful job the Red Arrows do for the UK around the world? I congratulate them on the successful 11-country tour from which they have just returned. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Hawk is an important training aircraft for the RAF. We have 75 of them and expect them to last until 2030. We are pursuing a range of export opportunities around the world.

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T4. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government’s commitment to NATO and to the collective defence of its members, which has kept the peace for more than 70 years? Will he condemn those who would withdraw from NATO and abandon our allies? [901342]

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NATO is the cornerstone of our defence. We are leading the battlegroup in Estonia, we have sent troops to Poland and we have sent RAF Typhoons to Romania. By contrast, the Leader of the Opposition does not support collective defence and Young Labour has just voted to withdraw from NATO.

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T2. Will the Secretary of State give us an up-to-date report on the implementation of the armed forces covenant, bearing in mind that it was a Labour Government who introduced it in the first place? [901340]

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As I mentioned earlier, the covenant is very important. It is a bond between the nation and our armed forces; it makes sure that they are looked after and are not disenfranchised. It is in its infancy and we must remember that it has a long way to go. We look at how the United States, for example, looks after its veterans through practical measures. Our reverence and love are no different, but we have a long way to go practically to give our veterans the respect they deserve.

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T7. Do the Government plan to provide mid-life upgrades to the Typhoon and Chinook? [901345]

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We will create two additional frontline squadrons from our existing fleet and extend Typhoon in service until 2040. The Typhoon’s capabilities are constantly evolving through initiatives such as Project Centurion. We will also upgrade our Chinook heavy-lift helicopter to extend its life into the 2040s.

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T3. The Government’s intention to come out of the single market and the customs union will affect the complex supply chains in defence procurement. Has the Minister made a full assessment of the implications of Brexit for defence procurement, taking into account the complex supply chains? [901341]

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I assure the hon. Lady that an extensive programme of work is under way not only in the Ministry of Defence, but with our colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union. We are very conscious of the importance of those supply chains.

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T9. Given the concern on both sides of the House about the prosecution of Northern Ireland veterans up to 40 years after incidents occurred for which no new evidence is available, what would the Secretary of State’s reaction be to an approach from the main Opposition party to see whether some form of consensus could be agreed on how to prevent that from happening? [901347]

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There is broad agreement within Northern Ireland that the current systems and structures for dealing with the legacy of the troubles are not delivering enough for victims, survivors and wider society. We are working with the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that investigations are fair and proportionate, and that they focus on terrorists, not the personnel who kept us safe. We think that there should be, and would welcome, further discussions.

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I call Martin Whitfield.

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My apologies, Mr Speaker. I have already asked a question.

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I know you have already asked a question, but there is no bar on a second if the mood takes you. Don’t feel you need to apply a self-denying ordinance. Repetition in this place is not an uncommon phenomenon.

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T5. I will try to avoid repetition, Mr Speaker. Is the Minister aware that national insurance records are failing to be handed over to veterans’ groups, so veterans cannot be identified when they are making a benefit application? [901343]

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I was not directly aware of that point. I meet three or four charities every single week. I will raise that issue, which goes back to my point about veterans receiving the support they deserve. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me with more detail, I would be grateful to receive his letter.

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T10. Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the members of the armed forces who provided such brilliant support to those suffering at the hands of Hurricane Irma, and set out for the House what difference those efforts have made? [901348]

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I am sure my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House. The military response to Hurricane Irma was swift. RFA Mounts Bay was pre-positioned. At the peak, we had nearly 2,000 troops on the islands, who were deployed very quickly. Through the use of helicopters and other support, they managed to get aid to areas that simply would not have received it had there not been military intervention. I take this opportunity, on behalf of the whole House, to thank the armed forces for their efforts.

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T6. Will the Minister please confirm to the House when the outcome of the armed forces compensation scheme quinquennial review will be published? [901344]

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As nobody else is getting up, I will jump to my feet. I look forward to presenting the armed forces quinquennial review in the very near future.

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Five ships of the Royal Navy have been named HMS Exeter after Devon’s county capital, the first in 1680. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be entirely appropriate if one of the new frigates continued that great tradition?

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My right hon. Friend makes a very compelling case, as have many other colleagues from all parts of the House. I am sure he will welcome the fact that an offshore patrol vessel, HMS Tamar, is currently being built.

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T8. It must be in the national interest to retain domestic military aircraft manufacturing capability. If the Government do not bring forward a replacement for the Red Arrows, how will they guarantee that domestic capacity while military orders are secured for the long term at BAE, given the current shortage of orders? [901346]

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, because we have such strong leadership in this area. What I would say is this: it is also important that we show cross-party support for the many export campaigns BAE Systems is involved in around the world. I urge him to do what he can with his leader and the Opposition Front-Bench team to do that.

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Given that Typhoon is scheduled to leave service in 2040, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to procure the next generation of fighter aircraft given the potential opportunities for export, and to preserve and maintain our sovereign defence capability?

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Again, a very important question. On the support we are giving to Typhoon exports around the world, I was delighted that recently my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to sign a statement of intent with Qatar. We will continue with that effort, as well as considering our options on a replacement.

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The Secretary of State was most welcome to my constituency four weeks ago, albeit to name a ship that was built in Glasgow. When does he intend to visit Glasgow to announce naval shipbuilding in Belfast?

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I hope the hon. Gentleman shared my pride in restoring again the name of HMS Belfast to a warship of the line. I will certainly bear his suggestion in mind next time I am in Glasgow.

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My constituent, Aiden Aslin, has just returned to Newark after fighting with the Kurdish peshmerga and helping to defeat IS in Syria and northern Iraq. He is one of hundreds of British citizens who have done the same. Will my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary note the contribution and bravery of these British citizens but seek strongly to dissuade other young people from taking that extremely dangerous course in future?

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I certainly note that. I advise any British citizen wanting to go to fight against Daesh/ISIS that the way to do so is to join our armed forces, and to get the professional training necessary and the respect for international humanitarian law that goes with it.

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It is 35 years since HMS Sheffield was sunk in the Falklands war, and my constituents believe it is about time that another Royal Navy ship was named after our great city. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the relevant committee gives full consideration to ensuring that we can enjoy the third HMS Sheffield?

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The hon. Lady makes a poignant appeal for another ship to be named HMS Sheffield, and I am sure that her representations will have been heard by the relevant committee. I am pleased we are building so many new ships in this country that we can have all these new names.

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Engineers at BAE in Chelmsford were critical in developing the Sampson multi-function radar, the Sea Wolf missile tracking radar and the highly innovative T994 two-dimensional radar. When it comes to the next generation, the ballistic missile defence radar, will the MOD consider employment as well as capability and make sure that these skills stay in Britain?

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My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we do not have to distinguish between the two things, because the radars made by BAE Systems are unrivalled around the world.

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I agree with what the Secretary of State said about Daesh, but he will know that one thing that separates them from us is that we are bound by the rule of law, specifically rules of engagement. Will he confirm that our conduct will always be bound by the Geneva convention?

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Absolutely. That is one of the things that distinguishes our armed forces from Daesh—the way in which it has unscrupulously used civilians to prosecute its case.

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I think we should hear from a member of the Defence Committee.

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The Secretary of State’s own permanent secretary said last Tuesday to the Defence Committee, on the subject of the F-35 programme:

“We will not be in a position to be able to give a precise view as to what the whole of this very complicated programme will be until 2035”.

Does that not put paid to the Secretary of State’s incredible claim that eight Type 26 frigates would provide work on the Clyde till 2035?

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It puts paid to the idea that anyone can forecast a budget two decades out and get it down with pinpoint certainty, which is something I know the Scottish Government might also find difficult.

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On a point of order, Mr. Spearker.

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Exceptionally, I will take this point of order now. It is germane and should be heard by occupants of the Treasury Bench.

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It is now more than four months since the general election, but still the Liaison Committee cannot meet formally to carry out its functions on behalf of the House. Will you assist us, Mr Speaker, because I am afraid that repeated representations from across the House by Select Committee Chairs are not yet making a difference in ensuring that all Select Committees are properly constituted?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. It is absurd and indefensible that more than four months after the state opening of Parliament, that Committee, which, of course, consists of the Chairs of the Select Committees, has yet to be constituted. I might add—almost in parentheses, because I am sure that the hon. Lady will feel empathy with other colleagues on this front—that the same situation, I think, applies to the European Scrutiny Committee, and also to another Committee which is not a Select Committee but which is a Committee of Parliament, and a very important Committee at that, namely the Intelligence and Security Committee. Those Committees are there to scrutinise the Executive branch.

I discussed this important matter in a most co-operative exchange with the Leader of the House at the start of the summer recess, and I know that she used her best endeavours, with others, to ensure the constitution of many of the Select Committees some little while ago. However, the fact that the remaining Committees are as yet unconstituted is simply not acceptable.

It would obviously be most unfortunate if it were necessary for Members to keep raising points of order day after day after day after day before those Committees were established, and, as I am sure the whole House would want to avoid such an embarrassing fate, I can only assume that proper action will now follow. However, the hon. Lady is always attentive to her responsibilities, and I am certain that, in the grisly event that it is necessary for her to raise a further point of order, she will not hesitate to do so.